Actually, the Grass is "Greener"!
You've undoubtedly heard of organic food, organic baby products, even organic chemistry; but what about organic landscaping? If the answer is no, that's likely to change soon. For more than a year, Facilities Maintenance Operations (FMO) has been developing an organic landscape maintenance program that relies entirely on natural processes rather than potentially harmful chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or insecticides) and synthetic fertilizers to produce lush grass, flowers and trees. They're now preparing to roll out what they've learned across the entire University.
"FMO is clearly establishing itself as the organic landscaping leader at Harvard. These fully sustainable approaches are also providing our employees the opportunity to learn new skills while leading rather than simply adapting to the changes that are happening throughout society," said Wayne Carbone, Manager of Landscape Services.
Last April, a fully organic landscaping pilot program was launched in Harvard Yard as part of a joint effort between Harvard Design School professor Michael Van Valkenberg, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Graduate School of Design Loeb Fellow Eric "T" Fleisher, the Harvard Green Campus Initiative, and FMO. Wayne and his crew learned new techniques for naturally revitalizing the soil in the one acre test site, located between Harvard Hall and Phillips Brooks House. Liquefied organic composts, or "teas," enriched with living organisms were systematically applied to control pests and nourish the soil. The full results of the pilot program will not be available for several more months, but the early results have been impressive. FMO reports 30 to 50% less water use in the test plot than in previous years partly because grass and plants treated organically have developed deeper and more robust root systems. Also, in the first 90 days, root growth increased by almost 50% and penetrated the compaction layer. "As conventionally trained horticulturists we spend much of our time pruning and removing many of these valuable organic materials from the landscape for aesthetic purposes," explained Wayne. "In the fully organic approach, we compost these materials, allowing them to decompose and breakdown through a combination of heat, moisture and air (for ventilation). Most of us were already familiar with the basics of composting, since FMO has been composting all of the grass, leaves, and wood chips for many years (for use at the Arnold Arboretum). What's really different — and exciting — here is the use of carefully developed recipes for "brewing" compost that are designed to use different combinations of feedstock to achieve different results. The bottom line of organic landscaping is restoring the natural nutrient cycle… and the specific approach used to achieve that in any landscape system will really depend on the starting point. How far out of balance is the natural cycle and what's the cause?"
By reapplying this composted material, Wayne's crew is able to eliminate the use of conventional fertilizers, which contain chemicals and synthetic materials that can often cause more harm to the soil and create an environment where the plants actually become dependent on them. Furthermore, synthetic fertilizers have a very low assimilation rate (typically less than 20%) into the plants. As a result, most of the material winds up being carried away by water, but staying in the larger ecosystem.
The pilot also included the planting of two trees in the Yard. One was treated organically while the other was treated conventionally. The fungal activity (a key indicator of natural health in trees) of both will be monitored and compared to measure the effects of each approach.
Wayne and Jeffrey Smith, Director of FMO, have been working closely with Loeb Fellow Eric "T" Fleisher who has developed the nation's most successful fully organic landscape maintenance program at Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. When it comes to challenging urban environments, New York City is second to none with all of the same issues the well-traveled Harvard landscapes face: over compaction of soils, use of salts to keep walks and roadways clear of ice, and high expectations for pleasing aesthetics. One of T's goals as a Loeb Fellow was to demonstrate that his program, which has been in operation for the past nineteen years, could be successfully transferred to institutions like Harvard. The typical 20th century approach to soil improvement would involve chemical fertilizers and amendments applied from the top down, but this organic approach achieves chemical change through biology, encouraging microbial activity working from the soil and the roots up," said T. "It requires taking a holistic view of the landscape and its natural systems and a thorough understanding of how they work at a micro-biological level. While it may take grass a bit longer to green up, it will be more resilient in the long run, use less water, develop healthier root growth, and be more resistant to disease."
FMO has already begun incorporating many of these organic techniques into their everyday landscaping maintenance procedures. "Like Jeff is always telling us, for any of these programs to be truly sustainable there must be total integration," said Wayne. According to Jeff, much of what FMO is doing is also helping to shape decisions about how the Allston campus landscape systems will be developed and maintained. "Fully organic landscape maintenance is definitely what we're advocating for Allston. The good news is that folks are seeing the organizational commitment we've made to this approach, learning about our results in the Yard pilot, and really getting enthused about the direction we're heading."